Teen Mental Health: How to Discuss With Students
Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month.
A few years ago, I got an email from a former student. She was a high school junior at the time, and she wrote to voice a valid concern, one I hadn’t thought of before.
She had remembered that during middle school health class we had talked about not using the words “gay” or “retarded” as insults, and suggested I do a similar lesson with students about the term "OCD," as she was frustrated by people using it to refer to someone who was very neat or organized. She felt that by throwing the expression around so loosely, they were making light of a disorder that can have a severe impact on those who suffer.
This was an excellent point—OCD is about so much more than being neat or conscious about germs. Thankfully, Choices' new mental health feature, "I Had Depression", introduces readers to Sammy, who suffered from OCD that centered on her academic performance and a debilitating fear of failure. Now on the road to recovery, she’s determined to show kids like her that they’re not alone.
Naturally, reading her story took me back to that email from my former student. I’m not sure if she wrote to me because a friend or loved one was suffering from OCD, or if she herself had been recently diagnosed—but it didn’t matter. Her advocacy reminded me that as a health teacher, I had an obligation not only to teach students about mental health issues, but to also teach them to be mindful and supportive of anyone who might be suffering.
Here are four more ways you can keep that lesson in mind while teaching teens about mental and emotional health in the classroom.
1. Ensure a safe environment for all.
As teachers, we all want to make sure our students feel safe. However, in health class, where we often ask them to reflect on and share information about their personal health, this takes on a heightened level of importance. A safe and compassionate environment can be established early on by having the class set norms or expectations about how they will treat each other and foster a culture of respect.
2. Break down stigma and use inclusive language.
With about one in five teens dealing with symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other emotional health issues, we need to make sure students understand that this is an issue that impacts us all, either directly or indirectly. There should be no shame in talking about mental illness, just as there isn’t any when we talk about physical illness.
Teachers can do this by normalizing the use of mental health support and showing students first-hand accounts of teens dealing with stigma. You can start with the profiles in Choices, and then introduce students to more real kids on TeenMentalHealth.org. (Using this site will also introduce students to a collection of powerful resources, should they ever need it.)
3. Avoid overgeneralizations.
As my former student pointed out, that “one-size-fits-all” type of language can really alienate teens. I can still remember my high school health teacher—aka the football coach—describing eating disorders in such an extreme way that it caused those of us who needed help to immediately shut down.
People who are suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD, and other emotional health issues are so much more than their struggles, and their symptoms and triggers can’t all be found in a textbook. Encourage students to learn more about mental health by exploring advocacy groups and online resources where they can get a more comprehensive view.
4. Involve the counselors and don’t go it alone.
Education requires a team of support, just as recovery does. When you create a safe space and break down stigma, you can expect students to open up and share, whether that’s in their journals, one-to-one, or during a class discussion.
If someone shares something that concerns you, pull them aside after class to make sure they’ve talked to someone about it—and then let the counselors know. Most of us are not trained mental health practitioners, so it’s important we get support for our students from those who are.
For more, check out the resources for families and educators from The National Association of School Psychologists.